I fought five general elections but, apart from 1979, nothing I did pressing the flesh during the four-week election campaigns made any difference to the results. Indeed, by 1997, the more I was seen by constituents the more votes I lost. In that election, touched directly by the Neil Hamilton "cash for questions" scandal, Labour supporters would stalk me, waving brown envelopes in my face.
My first campaign, in 1979, was as a 27-year-old Tory candidate challenging a Labour MP in Brigg and Scunthorpe – a hitherto hopeless prospect for my party. Those four weeks seemed never-ending. An hour felt like a day; a day was a week. Although I was young and fit, I counted down to polling day in the way a child anticipates Christmas. I was, however, actually good at the banter. I charmed, I joked and joshed – winning with a majority of 486. I fought three more successful elections defending my ticket to ride on what voters regarded, even then, as the Westminster gravy train. But I drowned with the parliamentary passengers on the Tory Titanic in 1997.
No MP can resolve every constituent's problems and each election revealed a growing number of voters who resented the stands I had taken. Meeting voters meant that, as an incumbent, I was more likely to lose votes the greater my visibility on the doorstep. As I got older my stamina, patience and good temper receded.
At first I kidded myself – justifiably in 1979 – that the more constituents saw of me the more votes I would garner. In subsequent elections I did everything to skive: late starts, early and long lunches. I prayed for rain to stop play, and claimed (rightly) that I would lose more votes if I knocked during the TV soaps. So long as the swing was in my party's favour I'd have done as well if I'd gone abroad.
In 1987 one Tory MP, John Cope, was ill and unable to canvass. His majority increased. I wish I'd pulled that stunt but I did plead loss of voice for a couple of days when I couldn't face the tedium of being insulted any more. I hated being harangued by constituents but soon learnt that the more I was delayed by an angry voter the less running down the streets I had to do. By disappearing for an hour into someone's kitchen for a cuppa I could at least get a toilet and fag break even if I did have to hear their gripes.
Party workers forgot that I needed a bath and had to be fed. Only candidates know the strain of traipsing soulless council estates, being cheeked by teenage yobbos while desperate for a pee. I liked it when yobs threw eggs – an excuse to call off canvassing. Once, I blundered into a house with dozens of voters boozing: it was a wake. I must have lost 50 votes.
I travelled in an uncomfortable Land Rover with a loudhailer. My supporters wanted me to blast the streets to "unnerve the opposition". All it did was to annoy the night-shift workers, asleep during the day, and lose the votes of mums with sleeping babies. My agent had a thing for canvassing mums meeting the kids from school. We'd slap "Vote Brown" stickers on the kids, only to have complaints to the press that I might (in addition to being gay) be a paedophile. "Poofter", "queer" and "wanker" were the more polite epithets directed at me when, accompanied by more delicate blue-rinse activists, I sought the "yoof" vote.
Don't believe any incumbent government MP who claims to like elections. Possibly an opposition MP, not having to defend the Government's record and representing a slice of rural Britain where Tory votes are weighed, might claim that a month-long country pub crawl is enjoyable.
But as the Labour lot face their nemesis, their annihilation will seem like heaven after the pain of the final four weeks on electoral death row. This will be the first general election for over 30 years I can say I will enjoy – because I won't canvass a single voter. And I'll relish seeing whether my successor, Shona McIsaac, Labour MP for Cleethorpes, is felled by the electoral grim reaper.Reuse content